The impassibility of God pertains to the question of whether God can suffer or be acted upon by any created thing. For God to change would require that God become something other than he is. God would either have to become perfect (at least for a while), fall from perfection and remain imperfect, or vacillate between perfection and imperfection. It would, also, be possible that God would never reach and maintain divine potentiality.
God doesn’t have potentiality. His attributes cannot develop or diminish. It is impossible for God to become more or less of what his attributes contemplate. God cannot reach his potential or forgo it. Rather, God exists eternally in his divine potential. That’s why theologians speak of God’s actuality. God is pure act. For instance, God is maximally loving in and of himself. God is forever unchanging in his love. Better yet, God’s love is unchanging. Or even better still, Love is unchanging (because God is simple and love is a divine attribute. God is love).
God’s unchanging character (his immutability) does not undermine his affections. Rather, God’s immutability establishes his affections. It is because God is impassible that he shows forth his pure affections. Because God is unchanging in his mercy, he expresses or releases the actuality of his mercy toward those who by grace seek it through his Son. God’s maximum mercy doesn’t get turned on. Rather, it gets willfully directed and from our perspective released at divinely appointed times.
Some have suggested that God decreed that he be acted upon. Others have mused that God willingly takes on properties that allow him to change in relation to his covenant promises. Both positions are attempts to affirm divine impassibility while trying to avoid attributing too many biblical texts to anthropomorphic language. Notwithstanding, both theories are outside the pale of orthodox Christianity since in both cases God’s nature would be mutable even if by decretive condescension.
When God takes aim with his affections, he does so consciously and without change. He is merely responding (not reacting) to changes outside himself – changes he has ordained in others. God does not change, but the ordained states of affairs do change according to God’s will and providence, to which God responds appropriately according to his unchanging attributes. Accordingly, God’s immutable attributes ground his dynamic responses in relationship to his ever changing creation.
Without impassibility, no incarnation
For man to be saved he needs a mediator who would learn obedience through suffering. Redeemable creatures need a high priest who can be tempted in all ways like them but without sin. Yet God cannot learn obedience nor be tempted. Yet if God were passible, he could have ordained that he be tempted and suffer apart from the incarnation of the Son.1 Therefore, if God is passible, the hypostatic union is unnecessary. A body for the Son would not have been prepared for him. There would have been no need for Messiah. Yet it is precisely because God is impassible that the cup of wrath could not pass from Jesus as he petitioned. In other words, it would have been possible for the cup to have passed if God could suffer. Therefore, Jesus’ petition in his high priestly prayer affirms God’s impassibility, hence the need for a suffering Messiah.2
In discussions over impassibility we must stay clear of two ditches – deism and process theology, divine apathy and divine vulnerability. However, we must be sure that in our avoidance of the one, we don’t stumble into the other.
1I’m speaking in a reductio ad absurdum fashion, since obviously if the incarnation were not necessary to save because God is passible, then our reconciliation would be to a God who is less than eternally perfect. Christianity unravels.
2Redemption required the Son of God to empty himself, not by subtraction but addition. In the incarnation the Son remained God. And although he remained a divine person, he added to himself our humanity yet without confusion, change, division or separation. One person was now two inseparable beings. Through the incarnation God the Son could now suffer in his humanity.
In predicating to the Son his actions, we must distinguish which nature is the source. The Son thirsts in his humanity whereas he calms the storm in his divinity. Divine acts can be done by the Son through his human nature but not by his human nature. All acts, whether divine or human, can be predicated to the Son, but not all acts of the Son can be predicated to either nature.
It is the hermeneutic of the cults and not that of historic Christianity that seeks merely one or two Bible verses for all true doctrine. This should come as little surprise when we pause to consider that at the heart of Christianity is the church’s confession of the Triune God, which presupposes multi-layered doctrine as it relates to a plurality of persons who share eternally one divine essence. It is no different with the church’s doctrine of Christ, which contemplates distinct natures of divinity and humanity mystically united at the incarnation in the eternal Son of God – yet without confusion, change, division or separation. These foundational doctrines of the Christian faith were derived not from one or two isolated verses but inferred from many passages of Scripture as they relate to a larger whole, a system of doctrine that came into its own at the time of the Protestant Reformation and now tightly fits together like pieces of a puzzle. It is by comparing Scripture with Scripture and then doctrine with doctrine that the Reformed tradition has come up with an exhaustive theology that is consistent, coherent and explanatory.
Given the theological nuance of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God, it should not surprise that infant baptism is not a one or two verse doctrine. After all, infant baptism is in the name of the Holy Trinity and signifies engrafting into the Son of God. All that to say, we should not be put off by the claim, “There is not a single verse in the Bible that teaches infant baptism.” The avoidance of proof-texting in exchange for a fully orbed systematic theology within which a doctrine of infant baptism resides should lead us not to doubt but instill greater confidence in the church’s practice.
It would be hazardous to try to construct a doctrine of infant baptism by looking up verses in a concordance only that pertain to baptism. If baptism is an ordinance or sacrament reserved for those who are to be regarded as God’s people, then we must seek to understand biblical precepts that pertain to marking out the people of God. In other words, the question of who is to be baptized relates to how we should define Christ’s church. If water baptism is the visible rite of passage into the visible people of God, then it must be applied to infants of professing believers if they are to be numbered among the church. Contrariwise, if infants of professing believers are not to be regarded as members of Christ’s church, then the sign of water baptism must be withheld from our covenant children – if they may even be considered covenant children!
Are infants of professing believer’s to be regarded as separate from Christ, or are they to be regarded as Christ’s inheritance? When we are told not to suffer little children from coming to Christ, are we to deny them baptism? Are they to receive Christ’s blessing but not washing? Are they to be considered outside God’s covenant people and, therefore, denied participation in the outward administration of the covenant?
Continuity versus discontinuity
If baptism is reserved for members of Christ’s church, then our doctrine of the church will inform us on the question of who is to be baptized. Under the older economy children of professing believers had an interest in the covenant. When physically possible covenant children were to be marked out as the people of God through the sign and seal of circumcision. Most Baptists and Paedobaptists agree on that point. The question of infant baptism hinges upon whether there has been a change in this Old Testament principle. Are children of professing believers no longer to be regarded as they were under the older economy? Baptists answer that question in the affirmative.
From a Reformed perspective, the Old Testament has both continuity and discontinuity as it relates to the New Testament. With respect to continuity, the old is swallowed up in the new as Christ has fulfilled the covenantal promises of God.
“For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” 2 Corinthians 1:20
God’s covenant promises are fulfilled in Christ. In Christ the promises to Israel find their yes and amen, their affirmation and confirmation. Yet in another sense, the many promises of the many covenants are essentially one specific, foundational and singular promise – that is, salvation in Christ. That is why the apostle could say to the saints at Ephesus, “remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise [singular], having no hope and without God in the world.” Ephesians 2:12
The centrality of Christ in the covenants
It is the promised Christ who fulfills the Adamic covenant, that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. (Mark 8:31-33; John 12:27-32; 1 John 3:8)
It is the promised Christ who fulfills the Noahic covenant, that God would uphold and preserve the world (so that he might save the world). (Genesis 9:8-13; Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 4:3)
It is the promised Christ who fulfills the demands of the Mosaic covenant, as well as the outward administration of the sacrificial system. (Deuteronomy 7:6-11; Matthew 5:17; Philippians 3:9)
It is the promised Christ who fulfills the Davidic covenant, that one from David’s line would sit upon his throne. (2 Samuel 7:8-17; Psalm 89:3,4; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 1:32,33; Acts 2:29-31; 1 Corinthians 15:25; 1 Timothy 6:15.)
It is the promised Christ who fulfills the New Covenant promise. (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 22:19,20)
Given the Christocentric thread of continuity, we may now turn to the continuity of God’s covenant people.
The promise to Abraham and the doctrine of the church
An astute reader may have recognized that the Abrahamic covenant was not mentioned among the covenants listed immediately above. Given the ecclesiastical implications of the Abrahamic covenant of promise, it will be treated separately and in more detail below.
The takeaway from this small section is that there is a continuity from Old Covenant to New Covenant. The common thread throughout the Bible pertains to promise and fulfillment. The centerpiece of Old Testament theology is the promised Messiah who would deliver his people from the bondage of sin and inaugurate a new age in which righteousness would be established in the earth. The covenants of promise did not center upon Israel or a promised land, but rather the various strands of promise converged, finding ultimate fulfillment in Christ alone. Christ is the Seed of the woman who crushes the serpent’s head. It is David’s Son, the ascended Christ, who sits at God’s right hand encircled by the covenant-rainbow first given to Noah as a sign of a delayed judgement (presupposing intended consummation). It is Christ who has fulfilled the demands of the Mosaic law, whereby the ordinances against God’s people were nailed to cross, putting an end to the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic economy.
Abraham, Seed and Promise
Immediately after the fall, God promised that he would inflict a deep-seated hatred between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. That promise, which would come to fruition being a promise(!), included the good news that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Then the Lord of the covenant covered with skins the two who were naked and ashamed (Genesis 3:21).
God later expanded upon his promise with respect to the seed saying that he would establish his covenant between himself and Abraham. Not only would God establish his covenant promise with Abraham, he would also establish it with Abraham’s seed after him. This promise that was made to Abraham and his seed was that God would be a God to them and that they would occupy the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession (Genesis 17:7, 8). In response to the promise of God, which was one of redemption of a people and land for them to occupy, Abraham pleaded that his son Ishmael might live before God in faithfulness (Genesis 3:18). God refused Abraham’s request, saying “as for Ishmael, I have heard thee… but my covenant will I establish with Isaac” not Ishmael (Genesis 17: 20, 21).
God’s promise of deliverance of the seed would come to fruition; yet it did not apply to all of Abraham’s physical descendants. It even applied to those who were not of physical descendants. Abraham was to be the father of many nations, not just one. Notwithstanding, all those who were of the household of Abraham were to receive the sign and seal of the covenant, as if they themselves were partakers of the promise of God. Even more, those within a professing household who did not receive the sign and seal of the covenant were to be considered covenant breakers. This sign of the covenant was so closely related to the covenant that it was called the covenant by the Lord (Genesis 17:10). Consequently, those who had received the sign were to be considered in covenant with God; whereas those who had not received the sign (yet qualified to receive it) were to be treated as covenant breakers. We might say that the invisible church was to be found within the visible church, “out of which there was no ordinary way of salvation” (Acts 2:47b; WCF 25.2). (This principle of household solidarity was not something new, for it was Noah who found grace with God; yet his entire household was saved in the ark.)
When we come to Galatians 3, we learn something quite astounding. The promise was made to a single Seed, who is the Christ; and it is by spiritual union with him, pictured in the outward administration of baptism, that the promise is received by the elect (in Christ). “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ…For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ… And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:16, 26-29) The apostle teaches that the covenant promise was established with the Godman – the incarnate Christ, and by covenantal extension with all who would be truly, by the Spirit, united to the Seed in baptism.
Although God’s covenant was established from the outset with the elect in Christ, it was to be administered to all who professed the true religion along with their households. The theological distinction of the visible and invisible people of God was well in view, even at the time of Noah and most acutely at the time of Abraham. Although this was the theology of the covenant, the apostle still had to labor the point to the New Testament saints at Rome. After telling his hearers that nothing could separate God’s people from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39), the apostle had to explain how the people of God who had an interest in the covenant could have fallen away. How, in other words, could the people of God become apostate if the promise of redemption had to come to fruition being a promise from God?
The illusive Israel
With this pedagogical background in place, the apostle explained Old Testament Covenant Theology, which is that although God established his covenant only with the elect in Christ, it was to be outwardly administered to the non-elect as long as they were of the household of a professing believer and had not demonstrated visible apostasy. Consequently, not all true Israel are from external Israel (Romans 9:6), just like not all the New Testament church will be saved. “That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Romans 9:8)
In sum, although God treats professing believers as his elect, not all who are to be numbered among the visible people of God are chosen in Christ, i.e. children of promise. God’s promise was that he would redeem a particular people that he would place in his recreation, the church. The church’s final destiny is the consummated New Heavens and New Earth, wherein righteousness dwells. Until God separates the sheep from the goats, the visible church will contain unbelievers and hypocrites. Upon kingdom consummation, the visible church and the elect will be one and the same.
From covenant promise to covenant baptism
As we just saw, under the older economy, although the covenant of promise was established solely with the elect in Christ it was to be administered to the households of professing believers. This means that the children of professing believers were to receive the mark of inclusion and, therefore, be counted among the people of God prior to professing faith in what the sign and seal of the covenant contemplated. Covenant children, even if they were not elect, were to be treated as the elect of God and heirs according to the promise based upon corporate solidarity with a professing parent.
When the apostle addresses the children in his letter to the Ephesians, he does not distinguish them from the corporate body that he has already called saints, faithful in Christ Jesus, and those chosen in Christ. This is the unbroken pattern throughout both testaments. Although God establishes his unbreakable redemptive promise solely with the chosen in Christ, by precept all those who profess the true religion along with their children are to be regarded as among the elect until such time they demonstrate otherwise either in faith or practice, doctrine or lifestyle. Surely the apostle appreciated that not all the assembly in Corinth were necessarily sanctified in Christ Jesus, or effectually called into the fellowship of Christ. Yet the visible church at Corinth was addressed as such and without qualification: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours…” It’s no different when we come to the severe warning passages in Hebrews. After issuing warnings not to fall away from the faith, the author addresses the hearers he just warned as converted believers:
“But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” Hebrews 6:9
“But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.” Hebrews 10:39
(This has grave implications for pulpit ministry. After the call to worship the minister is not to address the lost. Congregational worship is not a tent meeting. It’s for God and his saints, a foretaste of the consummated sabbath.)
When we come to the New Testament nothing has changed with respect to the heirs of the promise. The promise remains established with the elect in Christ, as it always was. The question Baptists ask is whether the children of professing believers have somehow lost the privilege of receiving the sign of entrance into the New Testament church. They say YES, which places a burden of proof upon them to demonstrate such a conclusion by good and necessary inference if not explicit instruction.
By way of review, God’s promise to save Abraham and his “seed” was without any conditions (Genesis 17:7) that had to be met by those prior to God establishing his promise with the elect. Abraham responded to God’s promise of salvation in faith, which was first issued in Genesis 12, whereby he was justified (Genesis 15:6). Although God promised Abraham and his elect son Isaac salvation, God rejected Ishmael (Genesis 17:18-21). Nonetheless, Ishmael was to receive the outward sign of the covenant-promise, which was circumcision (Genesis 17:10ff). Accordingly, God’s precept was that his covenant sign be administered to the household of Abraham, even though God established his covenant solely with the elect in Christ. The apostle Paul picks up on this theme when he reminds us in Romans nine that the promise of salvation was not intended for every single person who was by precept to be regarded as among the Israel of God. In fact, the apostle explicitly tells us that the children of the “promise” are counted as Abraham’s seed, and not the children of the flesh (Romans 9:8). Accordingly, all those who would believe the promise are the true children of Abraham (Romans 9: 8; Galatians 3:9). Most importantly, the “seed” to whom the promise was made was Christ alone (Galatians 3:16). It is through union with Christ, the single Seed of Abraham, that we become true descendants of Abraham. As Galatians 3:29 states, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to the promise.”
Some misguided arrows, continuity and discontinuity
With respect to national implication as it pertains to circumcision, we must keep in mind that Abraham was not Jewish. Indeed, Israel according the flesh eventually came from Abraham’s loins, but the promise was that Abraham would be the father of many nations. Israel did not even become a nation until 430 years after God called Abraham according to the promise (Galatians 3:17). Consequently, contrary to what so many evangelicals think, the sign of circumcision primarily had spiritual significance as opposed to national or ethnic significance. As Romans 4:11 states, “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith…” The verse does not teach that Abraham received the sign of circumcision, a seal of ethnic or national origin. Given that covenant infants were to receive the sign and seal of the faith without having yet professed faith, we can at least dispel the premise that one may not receive the sign and seal of baptism without having professed that which baptism points to, ultimately union with Christ. In other words, according to biblical precept one needn’t profess to possess what the ordinance contemplates in order to have it placed upon him. These are God’s signs and seals to dispense as he sees fit.
God always had an elect people, which he so happened to form into a nation 430 years after the call of Abraham. The nation was incidental to the promise. The promise both precedes and transcends the nation and could, therefore, not be abrogated upon the apostasy of the nation. God has now taken the kingdom away from the nation of Israel and has started his final building project, the New Testament church. The church is the international people of God, a “nation” bearing the fruit of the covenant. Consequently, when one is converted to Christ he need not become part of the nation of Israel, for Christ has sent his followers into the world to make disciples of all nations. The promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations is now fulfilled in the universal, international church.
The disagreement and the error of both groups, Baptists and Paedobaptists
Herein lies the problem that many Paedobaptists run into when dealing with Baptists, especially so-called “Reformed” Baptists. “Reformed” Baptists argue that the Old Covenant was established with the elect and reprobates in professing households since many who were to receive the sign of the covenant fell away. Then they rightly show that the New Covenant is established only with the elect. Accordingly, they reason: if the covenant has changed from including non-believers to including only true believers, then baptism should be reserved only for professing believers in order to ensure (as best as possible) that the visible church resemble the true regenerate church of the New Testament. Paedobaptists get tripped up by that argument when they try to argue that both the New and the Old Covenant are conditional, i.e. established both with the elect and non-elect within professing households. Such Paedobaptists are correct with respect to the continuity from old to new but they cannot argue effectively that the New Covenant is established with certain unbelievers because Scripture doesn’t support it. Consequently, the Baptist argument often goes like this: “Hey Mr. Paedobaptist, you and I agree that the Old Covenant was made with the visible people of God, which includes believers and unbelievers (since many Israelites fell away from the true religion); therefore, we can agree that circumcision was to be administered to all males, elect or not, within a professing household. However, since the New Covenant is clearly made with the elect in Christ who will persevere in the faith (unlike unfaithful Israel), then it is reasonable to maintain that the covenant has changed with respect to inclusiveness. Therefore, the sign of the covenant should be reserved for those the elders are persuaded are actually believers.” In other words, the Baptist argues that since the people of God fell away under the older economy, then the Old Covenant promise was conditional and must have been made with non-elect persons; yet the elect of God will not fall away in the New Covenant, therefore, the New Covenant promise must be made with the elect alone. There is a flaw in reasoning that must be considered. Baptists who argue this way are contrasting the Old Testament visible people of God with the New Testament elect in Christ. By using a faulty comparison, the Baptist is trying to prove with whom the Old Covenant was established by showing who were to receive the sign (elect and reprobate); then they argue for the proper recipients for New Testament baptism on the basis of God establishing his NT covenant with the elect alone. By changing their criterion in this way, they arrive at logically unsubstantiated conclusion. In other words, our Baptist brethren prove with whom the covenant was established under the older economy by looking at who was to receive the sign (elect and non-elect); then they try to establish who is to receive the sign under the new economy by looking at with whom the New Covenant was made (elect alone)! That’s simply fallacious.
The single covenant of promise was established with the incarnate Christ and all who were elected in Him; yet this covenant, although established with the elect in Christ, was to be outwardly administered to the household of a professing parent.
The sign of the covenant
God commanded 4,000 years ago that the sign of the covenant be placed upon males within the household of professing believers. Although the sign of entrance into the covenant people of God has changed from circumcision to baptism (and can now be received by females), God never rescinded his covenant principle concerning households that were to receive the sign and seal of the covenant promise. In the same way that all Israel was not Israel, we may also infer that all the church is not the church. Nonetheless, we are by precept to place the sign of covenant membership in the church upon those who qualify, per the instruction of God – which was never rescinded or abrogated.
A concise deduction
An Old Covenant precept was that whenever possible the sign of entrance into the covenant was to be placed upon all who were to be regarded as God’s people. Children of professing believers were to be regarded as God’s people under the Old Covenant. Therefore, children of professing believers whenever possible were to receive the sign of entrance into the Old Covenant by way of precept. God’s precepts may not be abrogated without explicit instruction or good and necessary inference. Since God never abrogated the Old Testament precept regarding who was to receive the sign of entrance into the Old covenant, the sign of entrance into the New Covenant still should be placed on covenant children. Therefore, God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive water baptism since that is the New Testament sign that marks of the visible people of God.
More formally stated:
1. An Old Covenant precept was that whenever possible the sign of entrance into the covenant was to be placed upon all who were to be regarded as God’s people
2. Children of professing believers were to be regarded as God’s people under the Old Covenant
3. Children of professing believers whenever possible were to receive the sign of entrance into the Old Covenant by way of precept (1, 2)
4. God’s precepts may not be abrogated without explicit instruction or good and necessary inference
5. God never abrogated the Old Testament precept regarding who was to receive the sign of entrance into the Old covenant
6. The sign of entrance into the New Covenant is water baptism
7. God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive the sign of entrance into the New Covenant (3, 4 and 5)
8. God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive water baptism (6, 7)
A Reformed Baptist use of Jeremiah 31
Baptists will say that the abrogation of the principle in view is implicit in Jeremiah 31:34: “…they will all know me….”, which they say means that the New Covenant is made only with believers who know the Lord. Accordingly, they reason that we should ensure as best as possible to administer the New Covenant only to those who profess faith in Christ, which infants cannot do. The problem they run into with this line of reasoning is that the verse does not teach that the covenant is only made with those who possess belief! The promise of Jeremiah 31 is a promise of greater fidelity (verse 32), greater empowerment (verse 34), and a greater depth of knowledge (verse 34). It does not address the qualification for covenant entrance. Verse 34 does not speak to the question of with whom the covenant will be established. It merely teaches that those with whom the covenant will be established will indeed “know the Lord.” In passing we should note that under the older economy all those with whom the covenant was established would come to know the Lord. So, the difference in view cannot pertain to the exclusion of infants from the outward administration of the covenant promise. It must pertain to something else, such as the depth of knowledge of the Lord and / or the missionary explosion promised to Abraham as it relates to relatively all knowing the Lord.
Before considering what it means in that context to “know the Lord” we must first appreciate that verse does not teach us that the covenant will be made only with true believers after they believe. At the very least, if Baptists were correct, then the knowledge of the Lord would not be a blessing of the covenant but rather something that first must be obtained in order to enter into covenant! Moreover, the verse cannot possibly exclude infants from covenant entrance who will grow up to “know the Lord” because the verse does not imply a change in qualifications for covenant entrance, but rather it speaks to the increase of blessings that will be received by those with whom God establishes the New Covenant. The verse is not speaking of a new qualification for entering into the covenant; rather it is speaking about something different that will occur under the newer economy as compared to the older economy for those who will be in covenant.
The glory of the New Covenant
Since the Old Covenant was established with the elect alone, we may safely say that a saving knowledge was granted to all with whom God established the Old Covenant(!), barring no early deaths that would preclude saving knowledge. Consequently, the verse must be speaking to the quality and depth of that saving knowledge under the newer economy as opposed to the mere possession of it, which all those with whom God established the Old Covenant would have received. Not surprisingly, that is what we see in the New Covenant. Under the New Covenant with the establishment of the priesthood of all believers – through the revelation of Christ, the completed Canon and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – we all “know the Lord” in a manner vastly different than that under the old economy. In summary, Jeremiah 31 may not be used to defend a more stringent entrance examination for covenant privileges simply because it does not imply anything more than increase of blessings. Thankfully the glory of the New Covenant is not to be found in the exclusion of infants. (Also, the promise that all will know the Lord, eliminating the need to tell our neighbors to know the Lord, could very well be a reference to the triumph of the gospel in the world.)
Burden of Proof
Both sides of the infant baptism debate argue from silence. Paedobaptists observe that the Bible does not forbid infant baptism, whereas Baptists argue that the Bible does not command it. In this respect, both sides are correct. Notwithstanding, not all arguments from silence are equally weak or fallacious. Whether an argument from silence begs crucial questions largely will depend upon burden of proof. It would stand to reason that if for 2,000 years of redemptive history children of professing believers were to receive the mark of covenantal inclusion, then that precedent should stand whether the New Testament repeats the precept or not. Accordingly, Baptists must bring forth evidence to overturn the practice. Moreover, to assume discontinuity from the Old Testament if a principle is not repeated in the New Testament leads to the abrogation of many Old Testament principles that Baptists will readily agree should not be rescinded. For instance, nowhere does the New Testament forbid bestiality.
Corroborating Evidence from Scripture
When we approach the New Testament with a covenantal lens on, we would expect to see household baptisms given the Old Testament precedent of household circumcision. Behold, that is what we see. Scripture references the following household baptisms: Lydia; Crispus; Gaius; Philippian Jailor; Cornelius; and Stephanas. Other baptisms recorded in Scripture wherein are listed names of people are the baptisms of Paul, the Ethiopian Eunuch, and Simon Magus. The first two would not seem to have had children and we know nothing of the magician other than he was an infidel. The material point is, we would expect from a covenantal perspective that household baptisms would abound, and that is precisely what we see. Another piece of corroborating evidence is that in forty years of New Testament narrative and epistles we don’t find one instance of a covenant child coming to faith and undergoing believer’s baptism. Not once do we see what we would expect to see if credo baptism were the apostolic teaching.
Incidental Evidence from Church History
In the annuls of church history we see theology forged out on the anvil of providence. God appoints factions so that the church might receive those who are approved and entrusted with the truth (1 Corinthians 11:19). With respect to theological controversy, we have records of the Arian controversy; Sabellianism; Adoptionism; Nestorianism, and so on. We can read about the church’s defense against the denials of the divinity of Christ; a seed form of modalism; Christ becoming Son; Son becoming two persons, etc. In other words, heresies and heterodoxy are a matter of church record. Accordingly, we would expect to see at least some resistance to the practice of infant baptism given that there would have occurred a massive churchwide departure from apostolic teaching by the 3rd century if the apostolic teaching was indeed credo-only baptism. Yet we see no such resistance. None whatsoever. That observation works with infant baptism and against credo-only baptism. Yet positively, we know that Irenaeus referenced infant baptism in approximately 180, and Origen referred to the practice shortly thereafter. Although Tertullian advised against the practice (perhaps due to the pragmatism of delaying the washing of water so to lessen one’s post-baptismal sins), he nonetheless recognized it as the church’s practice; he also mentions children having baptism sponsors.
In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity. We often use the term total as a synonym for utter or for completely, so the notion of total depravity conjures up the idea that every human being is as bad as that person could possibly be… As wicked as Hitler was, we can still conceive of ways in which he could have been even more wicked than he actually was. So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person…The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.
To change the metaphor, God’s reflection in us has become distorted like a face in a carnival mirror. Such is our depravity that every part of every person is warped by sin. Sin corrupts our hearts so that we set our affections on unholy desires. It corrupts our feelings so that we are in emotional turmoil. It corrupts our wills so that we will not choose the good. Our whole nature is corrupted by sin. This is what theologians mean when they speak of “total depravity”—not that we are as sinful as we could possibly be, but that we are sinners through and through.”
These accounts of Total Depravity are somewhat typical. I believe they are also lacking. If Total Depravity is true, the rest of Calvinism is a mere footnote. Therefore, we do well to get the “T” of TULIP right. After all, our understanding of the glory of God’s grace is directly proportional to our understanding of man’s fallen condition.
Let’s look at this doctrine a bit more closely by considering whether that which we read in most contemporary explications of Total Depravity overlooks a profound insight that did not escape traditional Augustinians.
Agreement gives way to oversight
Indeed, many unbelievers lead impeccable lives, even engage in philanthropic work – even work that benefits the kingdom of God! Yet has that ever been a bone of contention or a misunderstanding of the doctrine? What is striking to me is that we rarely read what was understood by Augustine and echoed by Calvin, that all the “good” unregenerate man does is merely the result of one lust restraining another. In other words, what is absent from contemporary Calvinism is the idea that man’s so-called good, not wrought in regeneration, suits him for totally depraved and sinful reasons. The miserly man does not spend his money on licentious living, but the reason for such respectable refrain is attributable not to man not being as bad as he can be, but to man’s sinful lust for money (if not also an insatiable desire for self-respect and the respect of others). But is that what we typically hear when this doctrine is explained? Or do we hear that we are in “emotional turmoil” and not as bad as we could possibly be in this world? Emotional turmoil? That the will is no longer pristine and even in bondage does not begin to address the profound moral affects of the fall. My hope is that a largely forgotten theological insight will become unearthed below, that we might recognize how watered down this doctrine has become.
God’s common goodness restrains fallen man through the providential employment of man’s sinful passions in conjunction with man being created in God’s likeness. Accordingly, I for one may not say that Hitler’s judgement will be more severe than any of the popes or many of Rome’s sacrificial nuns. How could I possibly know? Such speculation is beyond my pay grade. What I do know, however, is that Hitler was obviously evil; yet it was the popes, not Hitler, who for centuries promulgated doctrines of demons that paved the road from self-righteous indulgences to eternal torment. Some bad guys wear white hats, even a mitre at times. God judges righteous judgement taking all into account. I’m finite and my judgement worthless, but what I do know is “all have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:12
When we say that “man isn’t as bad as he can be,” or that “man can always do worse” or that “Hitler had some affection for his mother,” have we adequately reflected on the sinful restraining-motives that keep men and women respectable? (Pause)
Do we appreciate that man is unable to do other than what God has decreed? Are we aware that in this world, contrary to what we typically read from those who try to uphold Total Depravity, that man is as bad as he can be – both in a metaphysical sense as it relates to the intentions of the heart but also in a decretive sense, which in fact secures our metaphysical intentions? By affirming that man isn’t as bad as he can be, how do we not eclipse that it is for sinful reasons that depraved men and women don’t desire to behave more sinfully?
So, why is it that we so often hear that man is not as bad as he might be? What is hoped to be communicated by this mantra?
For one thing, that assessment is usually based upon works alone – that which we can observe. Yet God judges motive and the intentions of the heart. Surely we would not say that “Satan isn’t as bad as he can be.” Yet why not say the same of man since God has man on the same restraining leash of providence as Satan? Satan doesn’t devour more than he does, but isn’t that because God has determined to restrain him? Is fallen man any different in this regard? Can either Satan or man do other than God has determined, or contrary to what either chooses according to his own evil intentions? In what sense can either be worse?
Satan and image bearers
Let’s be critical in our analyses. There are vast differences between man and Satan. Man is created in God’s likeness and when effectually called, recreated in Christ’s image. Another distinction is most men most of the time are restrained by conscience whereas Satan is not. Satan is evil personified. Satan might be constrained by his creaturely confusion but unlike man, not by conscience. Satan is confounded and utterly unconscionable. Whereas man can have natural affection, Satan has none. Man, though evil (per Jesus), doesn’t typically pursue that which intrinsically evil; whereas with Satan it is his ultimate delight. (Matthew 7:11; Luke 7:13) Indeed, there is a difference. Humans are not Devils. Notwithstanding, we have it on biblical authority that God’s providence restrains both the serpent and his offspring so that none can commit worse acts than she does, “for who can resist His will?” (Romans 9:19) That human creatures are providentially restrained through being God’s image bearers is certainly a distinction, but this is no relevant difference pertaining to the question of whether man or Satan can commit more heinous acts than God has determined, or whether anyone is as bad as she can be or desires to be. (One fascinating difference pertains to the means by which God restrains man includes conscience, whereas with Satan that is not a means of restraint. Notwithstanding, even man’s conscience is totally depraved. Depraved consciences often produce acts born out of fear of God, but never out of reverential fear.)
Man’s natural affection is utterly self-serving and when judged by God will be found purely and totally sinful. Again, man desires not to sin more than he does, but only because his desire for restraint suits him for sinful motives, which too will be judged sinful on the last day. Yet to be thoroughgoing we must also maintain that man can become increasingly hardened, but not any more depraved. Man’s depravity is indeed total. He is as bad as he desires to be and as bad as God will allow him to be.
Jesus is the light that is given to all men who come into the world. (John 1:9) Yet the light in man will accuse him on the last day apart from repentance. Ultimately it is God alone who allows the candle to continue to flicker and not go out. God alone restrains the unregenerate man either directly or through secondary causes. God restrains man through conscience, for a time, but there will be no such restraining goodness in hell.
Lord over motive and sinful good
When conscience restrains unconverted free moral agents from behaving worse than they otherwise would, such self-control is no less due to sinful motives than when one violates conscience and externally breaks God’s moral law. Even motive not to sin is sinful for the lost. The Reformers and the Divines captured this distinction by noting that outside regeneration in Christ and pardon, man can do no spiritual good. In other words, external good is internally sinful. It is that essential component of Total Depravity that is absent in contemporary Calvinism. Perhaps it is too unpleasant to think of our respectable friends and neighbors in this way. What we forgo, however, is standing in awe of God’s meticulous providence as it relates to man’s immoral intentions behind his conforming choices. (We lose out on praising God in our appreciation of the delicious doctrine of concurrence).
If the account of the rich man and Lazarus teaches us anything it is that unconverted man in his depravity will try to correct God forever. In hell man’s depravity will be fully manifested. Man won’t become more depraved, just like the converted cannot become more regenerate. The blackness of man’s heart finally will be on full display in the life hereafter.
I hope we might see a bit more clearly that in contemporary Calvinism the accent has been placed on “common grace” and how wonderful it is that the “unchurched” do such wonderful things. Little to no reflection is given to God’s wisdom and power as he meticulously restrains the utterly evil intentions of the ungodly by their sinful passion for respectability and enlightened self-interest. God doesn’t just work externally evil acts for good (as most Calvinists recognize, citing Joseph and his brothers), but also God ordains sinful–good–acts from those who are perishing, for his own glory and the benefit of the called according to his purpose. (We mustn’t confuse the two. The former contemplates sinful actions that are sinfully motivated, whereas the latter is more subtle as it relates to non-sinful actions that are sinfully motivated.)
When we water down Total Depravity, grace isn’t so amazing. In many respects, grace was more amazing 150 years ago among Arminians than it is described by many Calvinists today.
The profound truth of this doctrine is the very backdrop for the glory of God’s saving grace in Christ; yet do we confess the totality of Total Depravity? I believe we are in need of recouping the biblical teaching that there is no mild antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The antithesis is a deep-seated enmity inflicted by no other than God Himself. (Genesis 3:15) Man’s hatred of God often manifests itself in indifference, but that shouldn’t fool us. I suppose “splendid pagans“ aren’t really all that splendid after all.
Although we cannot define God, we can describe God. Our descriptions of God will be proportional to what God desires us to know. Yet being finite, there are of course limits to what we can know of God. With respect to mode or manner, God cannot have us know him as he knows himself. We’d have to share the divine essence to know God originally or intuitively. We can apprehend God, but we can never comprehend God. To comprehend God is to know God exhaustively, as God knows God.
We know God partially and imperfectly, yet we can know God sufficiently. Although we do not know God univocally, as there is no identity between God’s self-knowledge and our knowledge of the Divine, we are not left to equivocal knowledge either. There is true correspondence at the point of the analogical. Notwithstanding, the perfect revelation of God is revelation of the original. God’s revelatory self-disclosure is an accommodation to created beings. The reality behind the revelation is greater. God’s revelation of himself is not himself. God transcends his revelation.
Although God is incomprehensible, God is not “wholly hidden.” What should humble us should not lead us to despair. Although God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and our thoughts can never attain to the heights of God’s thoughts, the things God has revealed belong to us and to our children forever. (Isaiah 55:8,9; Deuteronomy 29:29)
God is knowable. If nothing else, we know God is incomprehensible(!), but by grace and pure condescension we know much more. For God has spoken to us in Christ, who is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. (Heb. 1:2,3)
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Induction, the basis for all scientific inference, presupposes the uniformity of nature, which is to say it operates under the expectation that the future will be like past. From a Christian perspective, it is ordinary providence that explains how the scientific method is possible. Therefore, to argue for the miracle of the resurrection according to evidence and human experience is “foolish” (Proverbs 26:4). Resurrection is a phenomenon that contemplates an exchange of ordinary providence for the miraculous, which pertains to God working without, above, or against ordinary providence (WCF 5.3).
The resurrection of Christ from the dead is contra-uniform. It does not comport with experience. Our experience is that people die and are not raised three days later. Also, we have all met plenty of liars and those deceived into embracing false beliefs (even dying for false beliefs!) but nobody living has ever observed a single resurrection of the body. Given the uniformity of nature coupled with personal experience, a more probable explanation for the empty tomb is a hoax put on by liars rather than a miracle put on by God. (The same reasoning applies even more to the virgin birth I would think.)
We do not come to know the Savior lives by examining evidence according to alleged neutral posture, for the facts do not demand the conclusion that Christ has risen. So, at the very least, Christians should not argue from evidence to resurrection lest we lie by implying that we know Christ lives because of evidence upon which our belief does not rest.
When well-meaning Christians remove the extraordinary claim of the resurrection from its soteriological context, the resurrection is anything but credible. Yet, the resurrection is perfectly sensible within the context of things we know by nature and are awaken to by the Holy Spirit working in conjunction with Scripture. Namely, God’s wrath abides upon all men and God is merciful and loving. In the context of man’s plight and God’s character, the preaching of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ can be apprehended as not just credible, but the very wisdom of God. Our full persuasion of the resurrection unto knowledge of the truth is gospel-centric. The good news of John 3:16 is intelligible only in the context of the bad news of Romans 1:18-20 and Romans 3:10-20. The former presupposes the latter.
The place of evidence:
Evidence indeed corroborates the resurrection and is useful within a Christian context. We read in Scripture that a man named Saul who once opposed Christ became the chief apologist for the Christian faith. The way in which one will interpret the transformation of Saul to Paul will be consistent with one’s pre-commitment(s). Christians take the fanaticism of the apostle as corroborating what they already believe to be true about the resurrection; whereas naturalists will find an explanation for the apostle’s transformation and empty tomb outside the Christian resurrection interpretation. Similarly, the way in which one interprets Joseph Smith’s claims will be according to one’s pre-commitment(s). If one is committed to a closed canon, then the claims of Smith’s Mormonism will be deemed false.
There’s a vast difference between:
If resurrection, then evidence
If evidence, then resurrection
The first refers to evidence as something we would expect given the resurrection. Whereas the second construct employs evidence as sufficient for resurrection. The first is biblical – the second, fanciful.
Of course the tomb is empty, for Christ has risen. Of course the apostle Paul preached the resurrection of Christ with all his heart, soul and strength, for Christ has risen. Of course the Mormon religion is a cult, for Jesus is the eternal Son of God and the canon is closed. Do we come to believe these things by evaluating supposed brute-particulars in an alleged neutral fashion, or are our beliefs already marshaled according to our pre-commitment to God’s revelation of his love for condemned sinners? Do the “facts” speak for themselves or has God already exegeted the facts for us?
The only way one ever will savingly embrace Christ’s resurrection is if the Holy Spirit gives increase to the work of the cross as explicated in the context of God’s solution to man’s dilemma.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God.
When ectypal knowledge obtains, the object of it must be true. If the object is true, then God must believe it (since God believes all truth). God believes it as it truly is, an analogy of the archetypal knowledge, which only God has (knowledge of the archetypal).
Assume all our thoughts of God are analogical. Although we cannot know God as God knows himself, we can know God as he has revealed himself to us in “baby talk.” Per my original post, the controversy of the 40s missed a distinction. If I may simplify, Clark thought that if we don’t know the content of a proposition as God believes it (not exhaustively yet at least minimally for knowledge to obtain), then we can’t have knowledge. Whereas Van Til maintained that we cannot know a proposition even minimally as God believes it lest we become like God.
It appeared that Clark was saying that the intersection was at the archetypal level. Van Til (CVT) was correct in denying that interpretation. Yet in saying all our knowledge is analogical (CVT), it left the impression that we can’t know anything given that if we are to know anything our minds must obviously intersect God’s (Clark). (Many Van Tillians often deny this, which leads to skepticism. What is knowledge after all? Many Van Tillians compound the error by allowing for apparent contradiction in an extreme sense of logical contradiction and equivocation. These sorts do Van Til’s thought harm.)
The solution is, God knows the original and the analogy. Did either side acknowledge that?! The creator-creature distinction does not imply that there is no similitude between God’s thoughts and man’s thoughts, but rather that the point of resemblance is at a point of true analogy, not at a point of univocation. I think both sides missed it. To my knowledge CVT did not acknowledge that God knows the objects of our ectypal knowledge whereas Clark dismissed analogical knowledge altogether.
In this post I addressed the aberrant view that justifying faith is assent alone apart from trusting in Christ. In that post I made a passing reference to another extreme view of faith – the “Lordship Salvation” gospel whose advocates not only define faith without reference to trust, but also add commitment of life to assent, which in turn eclipses the gospel and redefines how one might appropriate Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel.
John MaCarthur is the most noteable proponent of this view. It is noteworthy that MacArthur does not subscribe to historical Reformed theology. In that respect, he is unchecked with respect to confessional theology in the Reformed tradition. Aside from having a baptistic ecclesiology and a dispensational view of the covenants, he has gotten the doctrine of justification wrong and justifying faith wrong. I address those errors here.
Saving FaithAccording to John MacArthur
Forsaking oneself for Christ’s sake is not an optional step of discipleship subsequent to conversion; it is the sine qua non of saving faith.
The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 142
By “saving faith” MacArthur actually means justifying faith. We may infer this because he is speaking of the faith that is tied to conversion. Accordingly, sanctifying or persevering faith is not in view. What is noteworthy is MacArthur cites “forsaking oneself” as an essential condition for our pardon in Christ. Yet that is radically different than how the Reformed tradition defines justifying faith.
Justifying faith is a saving grace wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.
Westminster Larger Catechism, #72 What is justifying faith?
The most detailed Confession in the history of the Protestant tradition defines faith quite differently than MacArthur. At the heart of justifying faith is receiving and resting upon Christ, which is absent in MacArthur’s ordo salutis. Moreover, to add forsaking one’s life(!) to the simplicity of faith is another gospel. It’s to add works to faith. Not only does MacArthur add forsaking one’s life to faith, he also asserts that personal commitment is essential to justifying faith.
Commitment is the disputed element of faith around which the lordship controversy swirls. No-lordship theology denies that believing in Christ involves any element of personal commitment to Him.
Faith Works, The Gospel According To Jesus, p. 43-44
John MacArthur contends that justifying faith, the faith that appropriates the benefits of Christ, entails “forsaking oneself” and “commitment.” It is not MacArthur but the Westminster Shorter Catechism that has it right when it states:
Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, he is offered in the gospel.”
Westminster Shorter Catechism, #86 What is faith in Jesus Christ?
It completely escapes MacArthur that personal commitment and forsaking of life are true works of righteousness, which are fruits of sanctification and not elements of faith. What MacArthur also misses is that justifying faith is merely an instrument through which the unrighteous lays hold of Christ’s righteousness. (Westminster Shorter Catechism #73)
Not only does MacArthur add works to justifying faith, he leaves out the crowing element of justifying faith, which is child like trust in the perfect righteousness of Another. But it is worse than that. Much worse. Not only does MacArthur add works to faith while leaving out trust, he would have us believe that the traditional view of trust (often referred to as fiducia) is not reliance upon Christ but rather surrender.
This “trust,” or fiducia, faith’s volitional component, is the crowning element of believing it involves surrender to the object of faith.”
Faith Works, The Gospel According To Jesus, p. 44
In essence, MacArthur takes the volitional component of justifying faith, fiducia, and turns it into something other than mere child like trust in the righteousness of Christ. MacArthur redefines trust. For MacArthur fiducia is not to exercise trust in Christ’s alien righteousness but rather it is the work of bringing to Christ our own righteous deeds in the form of forsaking of oneself, commitment, and surrender.
In MacArthur’s book Justification by Faith, MacArthur takes up the question of “Crediting righteousness to the Christian’s account.”
God actually credits righteousness to our account. He imputes righteousness to us; He infuses divine life into us; He regenerates and sanctifies us. He makes the unholy holy, and therefore declares that we are righteous. There is an ontological as well as a forensic declaration. There is a reality – God gives us righteousness, and thus He can declare that we are righteous.
Justification by Faith, p.121
God does not declare that we are righteous because he makes the unholy holy. God justifies the ungodly! (Romans 4:5) Nor are there two declarations, one for our ontic change and one for our imputed righteousness. The forensic applies to imputation, not infusion. Lastly, does God declare us righteous because he “gives” us righteousness?
One page later MacArthur states:
The believing sinner is justified by righteousness infused into him.
Justification by Faith, p,122
That is Rome, not Westminster.
It’s my understanding that MacArthur may have repented of his views of Justification, just like he repented of his denial of the eternal Sonship of the Second Person of the Trinity. He has not recanted on the nature of justifying faith, however.
My point is not to point out MacArthur’s errors. If that was my agenda, there’s more I might have written. My original point was to address the aberrant views of faith that flank the Reformed view. Two ditches to avoid. Yet one cannot help but realize the protective nature of Confessional Theology. One can attend an independent church for her entire life and believe that she is getting the pure milk of God’s word, when in fact she might be getting something quite foreign to the teaching of the Fathers and the Reformers. Nor is this just a matter of theological novelties and heterodoxy. It’s a matter of both faith and practice. Case in point, how many Reformed denominations are aligning themselves with MacArthur’s stance against the civil magistrate? That practice is rooted in dubious exegesis, arbitrariness and inconsistency. Often right but never in doubt is not a comforting formula for church leadership. I thank God for the checks and balances of Presbyterianism and the collective wisdom of the Reformed tradition.
Regarding the Clark / Van Til controversy of the 1940s these points were innocuous.
1. Both sides affirmed a quantitative difference between God’s knowledge and man’s. The disagreement wasn’t so trivial as to pertain to the number of propositions known or how they exhaustively relate to each other. Surely, both sides agreed. God knows more stuff.
2. The mode or manner of how God knows is radically different than that of man. God’s knowledge is original or intuitive. Man’s, receptive or derivative. I know no disciple of CVT or GHC who’d demur.
3. The Westminster team wanted Clark and his gang to affirm a qualitative difference regarding the “content” of what God and man know.
With that as our backdrop, a few words…
All God’s knowledge is eternal and exhaustive. We oppose process theology, open theism, socinianism etc. Yet with respect to God’s ectypal knowledge, that knowledge would be God’s eternal and unchanging knowledge of the analogy he always intended to reveal to us through the things that are made. So, God knows himself originally, but as he lisps his revelation of himself to us he does so in a manner suitable to our creatureliness. The object of our knowledge is God’s revelation of himself, which is a replication or divine interpretation of the original.
Moving beyond the premise, this construct makes room for our having univocal knowledge, but not univocal with respect to God’s intuitive knowledge of himself, rather univocal with respect to God’s knowledge of his interpretation of the original. The point of contact or intersection between minds would be the analogy, which is to say God’s communication.
With that in mind, we may consider our knowledge of the ectypal univocal, but not in relation to the archetypal but in relation to God’s own knowledge of the (analogical) objects of our analogical knowledge. In other words, although our knowledge is analogical to God’s original self knowledge (analogical to the archetypal), our knowledge in another sense is univocal as it corresponds not directly to the original of God’s knowledge but rather as it corresponds to God’s own knowledge of the analogical icons that we also know.
In a word, it’s not that we know what God knows (the original), but that God knows what he has allowed us to know (the interpretation of the original).
Many Christians believe that the second commandment has always only been against making an image of God and using it as a worship aid, like Roman Catholicism promotes in practice. (The Eastern Church’s icons are usually up for grabs.) A growing number of Protestants who avoid crucifixes and such will say that the commandment is addressing carved images or possibly God’s divine nature but certainly not Jesus’ human nature acted out in a movie.
Are Christians taking in a Jesus film merely to get a glimpse of the Lord’s humanity, or are they looking to be spiritually edified by a visual depiction of the God-man? If they’re looking for spiritual edification, then the accompanying sin is that of false worship through the mediation of an image of Christ, which is forbidden under the second commandment. If the aim is not spiritual edification, then the pursuit is a vain thing and, therefore, forbidden under the third commandment. If the second commandment refers only to false gods and not the living God, then the second commandment collapses into the first commandment leaving us with nine commandments.
What I think is most times overlooked is that Jesus’ personality is that of the Second Person of the Trinity and not just any human personality. God could not have given the incarnate Christ my personality for instance, and we reject adoptionism. No, the incarnate Christ has the personality of the eternal Son while being fully God and fully man. Added to this, an actor, no matter how good, cannot help but project his own personality (blended with a scripted personality) onto the screen. He cannot portray the personality of another perfectly – let alone the personality of the Second Person of the Trinity even approximately. Therefore, the actor who would dare play the Christ cannot but project a false image of God even if he sticks to the written script of Scripture. It’s not as though verbal tone and body language do not proceed from personality. In fact, the reverse is true. Reactions of persons convey ideas that are propositional in nature. These picture-words are being passed off as God’s communication.
The idea of perichoresis as it relates to the hypostatic union is relevant to this discussion and should inform our thinking on the second commandment as it relates to images of Christ in movies. We can rightly say that the divine nature penetrates the human nature (yet without commingling or confusion of the distinct natures of Christ). Although the two natures of Christ are indeed distinct (i.e., there is no transfer of properties), the divine works of the Second Person, though they do not originate with the human nature, are performed through the human nature by the divine Son. Also, the three persons of the Trinity although distinct, they mutually indwell each other and “share the same divine space,” as it were. Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, Luke 4:1; the Father indwells the Son, John 14:10, etc. To see Jesus is to see not only his humanity but God with us, Immanuel.
The divine nature precedes the human nature in the incarnation. The Son of God became man. Accordingly, although the omnipresent divine nature penetrates the human nature in a qualified sense, the reverse is not true. The human nature never penetrates the divine nature. In the time of Jesus’ humiliation, no less than now as the exalted Christ, this divine penetration results in Jesus’ tone of voice and body language. May Jesus be accurately portrayed as effeminate or would his divine nature forbid such a penetration to his human nature? Would He grin or appear disappointed in the same way and over the same things as any mortal actor? We must also remember, the human nature of Christ could never be observable in isolation from the divine person and hence His eternal nature. This human nature belongs to a divine person who is as fully God as he is fully man. To see Christ the human being is to see God in the flesh. To see Jesus thirst is to see the Second Person thirst in His humanity. And so, to see the divine works of Jesus is to see them through the workings of Jesus the human being. So, we may not say we’re going to see a movie on Jesus’s humanity, as if something is not being alleged about His divinity. One of the goals of the incarnation is that upon gazing on Jesus we might also exclaim, “my Lord, and my God!” (John 20:28). We might also note that the crucifixion is being put forth in such depictions but not the work of the cross. Propitiation cannot be captured in cinematography.
Given the art that depicts Jesus, it’s no wonder that he is not seen by the church as the Ancient of Days, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the God of Psalms 2 and 3 (for instance). The Lord Jesus is more often depicted as a suffering servant who deserves our pity and needs our help than the King of Glory. Such a Savior doesn’t command the church.
What possibly intrigues me most in all of this is that when I watch a good movie I have no problem suspending my beliefs so that the actor may “become” for me the character. So, Al Pacino becomes The Don and Anthony Hopkins becomes C.S. Lewis. No necessary sins there I trust. Do Christians do the same when watching Jesus movies? If they shouldn’t, then what should that tell us? Obviously, Christians are to be on their guard because they should realize that the actor will not be faithful to the Second Person. But that presupposes a false image, a violation of the second commandment. We don’t know Jesus’ facial expressions, etc. but such expressions from an actor often speak a thousand words. Are those words consistent with the Son of God? More to the point, are they His words? If not, then how are movies such as this not putting words in God’s mouth? How is that not to construct a false image?
Most of the things we assent to, whether a priori or a posteriori, are not volitional. One does not will to believe that God exists any more than one wills to believe the rose is red. These are mental assents that are not discursive; they are immediate and without reflection. The will is bypassed.1 However, the gospel always engages the will as the unbeliever counts the cost and by grace abandons all hope in himself while looking to Christ alone, finding rest in Him. Accordingly, it is inadequate to reduce justifying faith to belief alone when belief is reduced to assent without remainder.
Clarkians and easy-believism advocates promote that we are justified by belief alone. One is justified by assenting to “Jesus died for me.” Another extreme comes from “Lordship Salvation” advocates who define trusting in Christ in terms of commitment of life, which eclipses the gospel and redefines how one might appropriate Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. The focus of this post is on the former error.2
Clarkians will assert that assent is synonymous with resting in or relying upon Christ. In this context it is suggested that to assent to Christ dying on the cross for my sins is to “trust” the proposition is true. Albeit the premise is true for true believers, this observation turns on a subtle equivocation over the word trust. Indeed, to trust a proposition is true is no different than to assent to its truth. So, in that sense trust and assent are synonyms. However, to trust that something is true is not the same thing as to trust in something because it is believed to be true. The latter idea of trust carries the meaning of reliance upon, whereas the former use of trust merely conveys an intellectual assent that might or might not be accompanied by reliance. Accordingly, to argue that trust and assent are synonyms in this way is to deny implicitly the need to trust willfully upon Christ alone for salvation.
Clarkians redefine trust so that they might appear confessional since the Westminster standards clearly speak of not just “accepting“ the gospel as true but also relying upon (i.e. trusting in) the finished work of Christ. (It’s not just equivocal but also a downright case of special pleading to define “trust” as a synonym for assent and then on top of that limit its use to assent. Clarkians should out rightly deny trust rather than suggest they affirm it. The trust they equate with assent is not the trust of the Reformed tradition for that trust is metaphysical and volitional. It does not mean assent. It presupposes it!)
Assent pertains to accepting something as true, even possibly with no reflection, whereas trust (or lack of trust) pertains to the degree of relevance a person might assign to the “assented to” proposition. Assent is a mental act that need not be accompanied by volition; whereas trust in Christ is always volitional in nature. Assent always pertains to accepting the truth of a proposition, whereas how one might respond in light of assent (e.g. trust, rest, exuberance, etc.) is commonly classified under the philosophical heading of disposition (which is not propositional assent). Whereas trust and other dispositions can evidence assent, dispositions need not accompany any given assent since assents can be mundane, occur without reflection and, also, be subjectively perceived as inconsequential. (This is why philosophers consider disposition to be a poor indicator of the presence of assent. Dispositions are sufficient but not necessary for assent.)
Assents or beliefs are propositional attitudes that can be distinguished from volitional, metaphysical movements. For instance, choices are mental activities that engage both the intellect and the will. This is more recognizable once we consider that choices involve both judgment and reliance. What one deems as true can result in a choice to rely upon that which the judgment contemplates, but the intellection of belief need not give way to volition. This is sufficient to demonstrate that belief and volition are not the same things though they often go together. This observation would seem rather uncontroversial in the Reformed tradition. It was presupposed in Jonathan Edwards’ writings and was taken up by men like R.L. Dabney, A.A. Hodge and even William Cunningham. Yet contra this popular view, Gordon Clark believed that it is an illusion (an illusion, mind you!) to think that such acts of intellection differ from volition. Clark went so far to say that belief in a chair is volitional.
If assent and trust were synonyms, then either both would mean cognitive conviction or else volitional reliance. Conviction of truth (assent) could never give way to reliance upon truth (trust). If assent and trust are indistinguishable concepts and, therefore, mean the same thing, then it would be unintelligible to say that we rely upon anything we believe; nor would it be sensible to think that we believe anything we rely upon. Intellectual assent without reliance leaves no room for relying upon Christ; whereas reliance without conviction paves the way to trusting in Christ while not assenting to the gospel. Obviously, the concepts are indeed distinguishable as well as distinct principal acts of saving faith.
1 Even when the will is engaged in choosing, we don’t will belief. Doxastic Voluntarism is a philosophical surd.
2 In the not so distant future I plan to address the gospel according to John MacArthur and the nature of faith as the instrumental cause of justification. MacArthur fails to distinguish and ends up conflating the disposition of reliance upon Christ with the sanctifying grace that inevitably produces a faithful commitment of life to Christ.